Margaret Mead

Copyright Michael D. Robbins 2005


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Margaret Meade—Anthropologist:

December 16, 1901, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 9:00 AM, EST (quotation from a letter and from a colleague) or 9:30 AM, EST (from her by phone). Died,  October 3, 1978, New York, of cancer. 

(Ascendant, Capricorn; Sun conjunct Uranus in Sagittarius, with Mercury also in Sagittarius; Moon and Venus in Aquarius; Mars, Jupiter and Saturn all conjunct in Capricorn; Neptune in Cancer; Pluto in Gemini).           

Given its penchant to develop a global perspective, Sagittarius is perhaps one of the signs most associated with anthropology and the study of global cultures. The Sun/Uranus conjunction brings a definitely new perspective to the study, and the capacity to awaken others to a new vision. The stellium in Capricorn bestows the tenacity to required for scholarship in her chosen field. The academic side of Sagittarius is in full expression along with the innovations suggested by Uranus. Venus and the Moon in Aquarius give an interest in human nature, an appreciation for diverse social structures and the capacity to come into harmony with them. Rays three (breadth of thought and the power of comparison), five (research), and six (enthusiasm) are suggested. Perhaps the third ray stands out most strongly, giving her the capacity to grasp the study of anthropology in a large-minded way and communicate her vision to academia and to intelligent humanity as a whole.
(More and clearer needed here)


A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.
(Sun conjunct Uranus in Sagittarius in 11th house)

Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.

And when our baby stirs and struggles to be born it compels humility: what we began is now its own.
(Capricorn Ascendant)

Anthropology demands the open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess.

Because of their agelong training in human relations-for that is what feminine intuition really is-women have a special contribution to make to any group enterprise.
(Sun in 11th house. Venus in Aquarius.)

Every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man.

Fathers are biological necessities, but social accidents.

Having two bathrooms ruined the capacity to co-operate.

I had no reason to doubt that brains were suitable for a woman. And as I had my father's kind of mind-which was also his mother's-I learned that the mind is not sex-typed.

I must admit that I personally measure success in terms of the contributions an individual makes to her or his fellow human beings.

If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.

Instead of being presented with stereotypes by age, sex, color, class, or religion, children must have the opportunity to learn that within each range, some people are loathsome and some are delightful.

Instead of needing lots of children, we need high-quality children.

It may be necessary temporarily to accept a lesser evil, but one must never label a necessary evil as good.

Life in the twentieth century is like a parachute jump: you have to get it right the first time.

Man's role is uncertain, undefined, and perhaps unnecessary.

One of the oldest human needs is having someone to wonder where you are when you don't come home at night.

Our humanity rests upon a series of learned behaviors, woven together into patterns that are infinitely fragile and never directly inherited.

Sooner or later I'm going to die, but I'm not going to retire.

The solution to adult problems tomorrow depends on large measure upon how our children grow up today.

We are now at a point where we must educate our children in what no one knew yesterday, and prepare our schools for what no one knows yet.
(Sun in Sagittarius)

We have nowhere else to go... this is all we have.

We won't have a society if we destroy the environment.

What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.

Women want mediocre men, and men are working to be as mediocre as possible.

Women should be permitted to volunteer for non-combat service,… they should not be accepted, voluntarily or through the draft, as combat soldiers…. We know of no comparable ways of training women and girls, and we have no real way of knowing whether the kinds of training that teach men both courage and restraint would be adaptable to women or effective in a crisis. But the evidence of history and comparative studies of other species suggest that women as a fighting body might be far less amenable to the rules that prevent warfare from becoming a massacre and, with the use of modern weapons, that protect the survival of all humanity. This is what I meant by saying that women in combat might be too fierce.

Prayer does not use up artificial energy, doesn’t burn up any fossil fuel, doesn’t pollute.

The way to do fieldwork is never to come up for air until it is all over.

I was brought up to believe that the only thing worth doing was to add to the sum of accurate information in the world.
(North Node in 9th house. Pluto in Gemini opposition Sun, Uranus & Mercury in Sagittarius. Capricorn Ascendant.)

Of all the peoples whom I have studied, from city dwellers to cliff dwellers, I always find that at least 50 percent would prefer to have at least one jungle between themselves and their mothers-in-law.

The pains of childbirth were altogether different from the enveloping effects of other kinds of pain. These were pains one could follow with one’s mind.
ATTRIBUTION: Quoted by Nancy Caldwell Sorel Ever Since Eve: Personal Reflections on Childbirth Oxford 84

Anthropology demands] the open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess.

Much of the ill-tempered railing against women that has characterized the popular writing of the last two years is a half-hearted attempt to find a way back to a more balanced relationship between our biological selves and the world we have built. So women are scolded both for being mothers and for not being mothers, for wanting to eat their cake and have it too, and for not wanting to eat their cake and have it too. .
(Venus in Aquarius square South Node. Moon in Aquarius.)

Nobody has ever before asked the nuclear family to live all by itself in a box the way we do. With no relatives, no support, we’ve put it in an impossible situation.

It is ... useful to distinguish between the pornographic, condemned in every society, and the bawdy, the ribald, the shared vulgarities and jokes, which are the safety valves of most social systems. Pornography is a most doubtful safety valve. In extreme cases it may feed the perverted imagination of the doomed man who starts by pulling a little girl’s braid and ends by cutting off a little girl’s head, as each increasing stimulus loses its effectiveness and must be replaced by a more extreme one. This is particularly true of the pornography primarily designed to be brooded over in secret. But is quite otherwise with the music hall jokes, the folk ribaldry at a wedding, the innocent smut of the smoking rooms, where men who are perennially faithful to their wives exchange stories which release explosive laughter. Pornography does not lead to laughter, it leads to deadly serious pursuit of sexual satisfaction divorced from personality and from every other meaning. The uproarious laugh of the group who recognize a common dilemma—the laughter of a group of women at the story of the intractable unborn who refused to budge and merely shivered under the effects of the quart of ice cream hopefully eaten by its poor mother, the laughter of a group of men at the story of the bride who asked to be “frightened” a fourth time—is the laughter of human beings who are making the best of the imperfect social arrangements within which their life here on earth is conducted.

The liberals have not softened their view of actuality to make themselves live closer to the dream, but instead sharpen their perceptions and fight to make the dream actuality or give up the battle in despair.

If you associate enough with older people who do enjoy their lives, who are not stored away in any golden ghettos, you will gain a sense of continuity and of the possibility for a full life.
(Saturn in Capricorn in 12th house conjunct Chiron)

The institution of marriage in all societies is a pattern within which the strains put by civilization on males and females alike must be resolved, a pattern within which men must learn, in return for a variety of elaborate rewards, new forms in which sexual spontaneity is still possible, and women must learn to discipline their receptivity to a thousand other considerations.
ATTRIBUTION: Margaret Mead (1901–1978), U.S. anthropologist. Male and Female, ch. 10 (1949).

Coming to terms with the rhythms of women’s lives means coming to terms with life itself, accepting the imperatives of the body rather than the imperatives of an artificial, man-made, perhaps transcendentally beautiful civilization. Emphasis on the male work-rhythm is an emphasis on infinite possibilities; emphasis on the female rhythms is an emphasis on a defined pattern, on limitation.
ATTRIBUTION: Margaret Mead (1901–1978), U.S. anthropologist. Male and Female, ch. 8 (1949).


Margaret Mead was raised near Doylestown, Pennsylvania by her university professor father and social-activist mother. She studied at DePauw University and graduated from Barnard College in 1923. She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1929. Mead set out in 1925 to do fieldwork in Polynesia. In 1926 she joined the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, as assistant curator, eventually serving as curator of ethnology from 1946 to 1969. During World War II Mead served as executive secretary of the National Research Council's Committee on Food Habits. In addition, she taught at Columbia University as adjunct professor starting in 1954. Following the example of her instructor Ruth Benedict, Mead concentrated her studies on problems of child rearing, personality, and culture. (Source: The Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition, 1993.) She held various positions in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, notably president in 1975 and chair of the executive committee of the board of directors in 1976.

Although considered a pioneering anthropologist by some, there has been academic disagreement with certain findings in her first book, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), based on research she conducted as a graduate student, and with her published works based on time with the Sepik and on Manus Island. In some instances, literate people from the cultures she described have challenged certain of her observations.

Margaret Mead was married three times; first to Luther Cressman (a theological student during his marriage to Mead; later an anthropologist himself), and then to two fellow anthropologists, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson, with whom she had a daughter, also an anthropologist, Mary Catherine Bateson. Her granddaughter, Sevanne Margaret Kassarjian, is a stage and television actress who works professionally under the name Sevanne Martin. Mead readily acknowledged that she had been devastated when Bateson left her and that she remained in love with him to her life's end, keeping his photograph by her bedside wherever she traveled.

Mead also had an exceptionally close relationship with Ruth Benedict. Mead's daughter Catherine, in her memoir of her parents With a Daughter's Eye, implies that the relationship between Benedict and Mead may have contained an erotic element (see also Lapsley 1999). While Margaret Mead never identified herself as lesbian, the details of her relationship with Benedict have led others to identify her thus; in her writings she proposed that it is to be expected that individuals' sexual orientation may change throughout their lives.

[edit] Coming of Age in Samoa and the Mead-Freeman controversy
Main article: Coming of Age in Samoa
In the foreword to Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead's advisor, Franz Boas, wrote of its significance that:

Courtesy, modesty, good manners, conformity to definite ethical standards are universal, but what constitutes courtesy, modesty, very good manners, and definite ethical standards is not universal. It is instructive to know that standards differ in the most unexpected ways.
Boas went on to point out that at the time of publication, many Americans had begun to discuss the problems faced by young people (particularly women) as they pass through adolescence as "unavoidable periods of adjustment." Boas felt that a study of the problems faced by adolescents in another culture would be illuminating.

And so, as Mead herself described the goal of her research: "I have tried to answer the question which sent me to Samoa: Are the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilization? Under different conditions does adolescence present a different picture?" To answer this question, she conducted her study among a small group of Samoans — a village of 600 people on the island of Ta‘u — in which she got to know, lived with, observed, and interviewed (through an interpreter) sixty-eight young women between the ages of 9 and 20. She concluded that the passage from childhood to adulthood (adolescence) in Samoa was a smooth transition and not marked by the emotional or psychological distress, anxiety, or confusion seen in the United States. (Perey).

As Boas and Mead expected, this book upset many Westerners when it first appeared in 1928. Many American readers felt shocked by her observation that young Samoan women deferred marriage for many years while enjoying casual sex, but eventually married, settled down, and successfully reared their own children.

In 1983, five years after Mead had died, Derek Freeman published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, in which he challenged all of Mead's major findings. Freeman based his critique on his own four years of field experience in Samoa and on recent interviews with Mead's surviving informants. The argument hinged on the place of the taupou system in Samoan society. According to Mead, the taupou system is one of institutionalized virginity for young women of high rank, but is exclusive to women of high rank. According to Freeman, all Samoan women emulated the taupou system and Mead's informants denied having engaged in casual sex as young women, and claimed that they had lied to Mead (see Freeman 1983).

After an initial flurry of discussion, most anthropologists concluded that the truth would probably never be known.

The Mead partisans have asserted that Freeman's critique is highly questionable.

First, these critics have speculated that he waited until Mead died before publishing his critique so that she would not be able to respond. However, when Freeman died in 2001, his obituary in the New York Times pointed out that Freeman tried to publish his criticism of Mead as early as 1971, but that American publishers rejected his manuscript. In 1978, Freeman sent a revised manuscript to Mead. But Mead, who was ill and died a few months later, did not respond.

Second, Freeman's critics allege that Mead's original informants were now old women, grandmothers, and had converted to Christianity. They further allege that Samoan culture had changed considerably in the decades following Mead's original research, that after intense missionary activity many Samoans had come to adopt the same sexual standards as the Americans who were once so shocked by Mead's book. They suggested that such women, in this new context, were unlikely to speak frankly about their adolescent behavior. (Note also that one of Freeman's interviewees gave her born-again faith as her reason for admitting to the past deception.) Further, they suggested that these women would not be as forthright and honest about their sexuality when speaking to an elderly man, as they would have been speaking to a young woman.

Some anthropologists also criticized Freeman on methodological and empirical grounds. For example, they claimed that Freeman had conflated publicly articulated ideals with behavioral norms — that is, while many Samoan women would admit in public that it is ideal to remain a virgin, in practice they engaged in high levels of premarital sex and boasted about their sexual affairs amongst themselves (see Shore 1982: 229-230). Freeman's own data documented the existence of premarital sexual activity in Samoa. In a western Samoan village he documented that 20% of 15 year-olds, 30% of 16 year-olds, and 40% of 17 year-olds had engaged in premarital sex (1983: 238-240). In 1983, the American Anthropological Association passed a motion declaring Freeman's Margaret Mead and Samoa "poorly written, unscientific, irresponsible and misleading." In the years that followed, anthropologists vigorously debated these issues but generally supported the critique of Freeman's work (see Appell 1984, Brady 1991, Feinberg 1988, Leacock 1988, Levy 1984, Marshall 1993, Nardi 1984, Patience and Smith 1986, Paxman 1988, Scheper-Hughes 1984, Shankman 1996, and Young and Juan 1985).

Freeman continued to argue his case in the 1999 publication of The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research, introducing new information in support of his arguments.

After Freeman died, the New York Times concluded that "many anthropologists have agreed to disagree over the findings of one of the science's founding mothers, acknowledging both Mead's pioneering research and the fact that she may have been mistaken on details."

Margaret and her brother, Richard, Nantucket1911. (Mead Archives, Library of Congress.)
When Margaret Mead died in 1978, she was the most famous anthropologist in the world. Indeed, it was through her work that many people learned about anthropology and its holistic vision of the human species.

Mead was born in Philadelphia on December 16, 1901 in a household of social scientists with roots in the Midwest. Her major at Barnard was psychology, but she went on to earn a doctorate at Columbia, studying with Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. For her, anthropology was an urgent calling, a way to bring new understandings of human behavior to bear on the future. In 1925 she set out for American Samoa, where she did her first field work, focusing on adolescent girls, and in 1929 she went, accompanied by her second husband, Reo Fortune, to Manus Island in New Guinea, where she studied the play and imaginations of younger children and the way they were shaped by adult society.

With a Samoan woman, 1925-6. (Mead Archives, Library of Congress.)

The Samoan work, published as Coming of Age in Samoa, became a best seller and has been translated into many languages. This work presented to the public for the first time the idea that the individual experience of developmental stages could be shaped by cultural demands and expectations, so that adolescence might be more or less stormy and sexual development more or less problematic in different cultures. It was addressed above all to educators, affirming that the “civilized” world had something to learn from the “primitive.” The Manus work, published as Growing Up in New Guinea, effectively refuted the notion that “primitive” peoples are “like children.” Different developmental stages, and the relationships between them, need to be studied in every culture. Mead was thus the first anthropologist to look at human development in a cross-cultural perspective.

In subsequent field work, on mainland New Guinea, she demonstrated that gender roles differed from one society to another, depending at least as much on culture as on biology, and in her work in Bali with her third husband, Gregory Bateson, she explored new ways of documenting the connection between childrearing and adult culture, and the way in which these are symbolically interwoven. She and Gregory Bateson had one child, Mary Catherine Bateson.

Mead and husband Gregory Bateson doing field research in Papua, New Guinea, in 1938. (Mead Archives, Library of Congress.)

As an anthropologist, Mead had been trained to think in terms of the interconnection of all aspects of human life. The production of food cannot be separated from ritual and belief, and politics cannot be separated from childrearing or art. This holistic understanding of human adaptation allowed Mead to speak out on a very wide range of issues. She affirmed the possibility of learning from other groups, above all by applying the knowledge she brought back from the field to issues of modern life. Thus, she insisted that human diversity is a resource, not a handicap, that all human beings have the capacity to learn from and teach each other. Her delight in learning from others showed in the way she was able to address the public with affection and respect.

When World War II cut off field research in the South Pacific, Mead and Benedict pioneered the application of anthropological techniques to the study of contemporary cultures, founding the Institute for Intercultural Studies. Then, in her most sustained post-war field work, Mead returned to Manus in 1953 to study the dramatic changes made in response to exposure to a wider world. Reported in New Lives for Old, this research offered a new basis for her insistence on the possibility of choosing among possible futures. In a society becoming increasingly pessimistic about the human capacity to change, she insisted on the importance of enhancing and supporting that capacity. She believed that cultural patterns of racism, warfare, and environmental exploitation were learned, and that the members of a society could work together to modify their traditions and to construct new institutions. This conviction drew her into discussions of the process of change, expressed in the slogan, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”

Field trip to Manus, Papua New Guinea,1953-4. (Mead Archives, Library of Congress.)

Mead taught at a number of institutions, but her long term professional base was at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. She authored some twenty books and coauthored an equal number. She was much honored in her lifetime, serving as president of major scientific associations, including the American Anthropological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and she received 28 honorary doctorates. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom following her death in 1978. Her voluminous archives are now housed in the Library of Congress.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead became well known forher work on cultural issues. She studied a widevariety of cultures, and linked child rearingpractices to social patterns.

"I have spent most of my life studying the lives of other peoples -- faraway peoples -- so that Americans might better understand themselves."

was a world renowned anthropologist who offered much to the scientific knowledge of how human cultures develop. Her 44 books and thousands of articles have been well cataloged and documented so that we may continue to learn from her. 

Mead was born in Philadelphia in 1901 in a Quaker family. Her father was an economics professor. Her mother, Emily Fogg Mead was a sociologist. Margaret began her studies at DePauw University but after a year transferred in order to study what was then a new science, anthropology, at Barnard University under Franz Boaz and his student, Ruth Benedict. She received her undergraduate degree from Barnard in 1923. She ultimately acquired a PhD from Columbia University in 1929.

Her first marriage was to Luther Cressman, a minister and archaeologist. That marriage ended in 1928 and she married Dr. Reo Fortune the same year. Together they wrote, "Growing Up In New Guinea", published in 1930. Mead worked with her third husband, British born Gregory Batesman, on a book called "Balanese Character" that was published in 1942.

At the age of 23, Dr. Mead undertook a field study in Samoa in the South Pacific, against Boaz's advice. The experience resulted in her writing of her highly popular book, "Coming Of Age In Samoa", published in 1928. This book remains a best seller. As a result of her Samoan studies she came to believe that adolescence need not be a time of upheaval, and that our society creates problems when we deny sexuality and try to hide it. She studied many southern Pacific native cultures and is largely responsible for the contents of the American Museum of Natural History's Pacific Peoples exhibit. Nonetheless she occasionally had difficulty observing native practices including cannibalism, infanticide and incest.

Mead took a woman's perspective into the field of anthropology. She was the first person to study child rearing practices and their effects on societies. Her theory of imprinting, a method through which she believed children learn, continues to be researched and studied today. She believed that the study of children was essential to understanding ourselves and to improving our futures.

She combined psychological sciences with anthropological field studies for the first time. She believed it was important to create a link between anthropology and other fields of science. She had a great deal to do with making this information available to the general public through her writings, lectures, radio interviews and television appearances, including a number of appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. She was the first to use photography in anthropological field work.

Mead was an energetic spokesperson regarding human rights and social issues including women's rights, child development and education. She often testified before Congress and other government agencies regarding issues she believed to be important.

Her interests and writings spread across a vast range of topics, from spirituality to overpopulation. She worked in the Department of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History from 1926 through the end of her life, initially as assistant curator, then as associate curator and finally as curator. She was a professor of anthropology at Columbia starting in the year 1954, working with her old associate, Ruth Benedict. She wrote a book entitled "An Anthropologist At Work" about Benedict. It was published in 1959.

died in 1978. She is a member of the National Women's Hall of Fame and received numerous other honors during her life time. She was depicted in the "Celebrate The Century" stamp set released by the Post Office in the 1920s. Since her death some of her conclusions have been called into question, but there is no doubt about her contributions to the science of anthropology and human understanding.


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